Playing an increasing role in the new world order, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will likely face the challenges to keep its position based on values of the solidarity, the sharing of the vision while still have to solve each member’s problems.
In the end of November 2016, a Malaysian minister called on ASEAN to review Myanmar’s membership in the bloc.
The movement reflected tensions that lead to confrontations between Myanmar forces and Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority community in Rakhine, Myanmar. Thousands of Rohingya people have escaped from Rakhine to Bangladesh, and some of the rest went to Malaysia or Indonesia, according to AFP.
Under the pressure, in the middle of December, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi called meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to solve the Rohingya crisis.
Shadowed by East Vietnam Sea issue
2016 was the first year of ASEAN as the bloc considered a community within three main pillars: ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), Political-Security Community (APSC) and Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Yet the Myanmar story mentioned above is just one of many movements and challenges that ASEAN have been facing since the beginning of the year. Politics and governmental changes in the world have affected ASEAN in particular and the rest of the world in general, as well as among the ASEAN members.
Speaking to Doanh Nhan Sai Gon, Vietnamese and international experts argued that the East Vietnam Sea remains the main problem.
In terms of authorities, the 2016 witnessed changes in authorities of Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, etc. after their elections. In particular, new Philippines President – Rodrigo Duterte – has been taking prominent moves not only in domestic issues, but also in the Philippines’ policy toward the East Vietnam Sea.
In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that China’s so-called ‘nine-dash line’ is null. However, despite being favored, the Philippines under President Duterte administration did not push Beijing to accept PCA ruling. Instead, President Duterte opened for a possibility of bilateral talks between the two countries.
“The election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines was the most important event to impact on ASEAN in 2016,” said Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor of Politics at University of New South Wales (Australia).
“President Duterte ended a two-year hiatus in relations between Manila and Beijing and opened the possibility that the two sides could negotiate a new modus vivendi in the East Vietnam Sea.
“President Duterte’s decision not to push the Award on the East Vietnam Sea by the Arbitral Tribunal, along with muted reactions by other claimant states, meant that the major irritant in ASEAN-China relations was removed.
“China has promised to reach agreement on the framework to the Code of Conduct for the East Vietnam Sea by the middle of 2017.
“China now has every incentive to use diplomatic measures rather than unilateral actions to increase its influence in the Philippines and other ASEAN states.”
According to Professor Vu Duong Ninh at the Faculty of International Studies, the Vietnam National University, the main challenges of ASEAN in 2016 will be East Vietnam Sea issue.
Talking on the sidelines of The Fifth International Conference on Vietnamese Studies in Hanoi on December 15, 2016, Prof. Vu Duong Ninh argued that ASEAN had two forward steps in 2016.
Firstly, ASEAN started to become a community, marking the very important transformation for the bloc’s development. And second, the ASEAN Summit 2016 in Vientiane (Laos) issued a unanimous conclusion, showing strong linkages between its members.
This was different from what happened in Cambodia in 2012. However, external factors caused concerns too.
“East Vietnam Sea was the main issue that affected ASEAN in 2016, especially when China have been continuing building up islands in dispute waters... To Philippines, things seemed to benefit them with the PCA ruling, but the new president Duterte had another way to approach, turning to soft pedal Philippines – China relations,” said Prof. Ninh.
In 2016, there were some ideas that questioned ASEAN community’s concept over the East Vietnam Sea issue.
At the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, member countries did not issue a joint statement about the PCA ruling about Philippines-China lawsuit.
Earlier, international public opinion more than once talked about China’s intent to “divide” ASEAN by declaring a four-point consensus with Laos, Brunei and Cambodia, which confirmed agreement that the sea dispute must not be internationalized.
The ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting in Vientiane, Laos, July 22, 2016. Khamphan Lassmouth
Facing challenges in 2017
The movements as mentioned in 2016 are preconditions for ASEAN’s opportunities and challenges in 2017, the year that marking the 50th anniversary since the establishment of the bloc.
ASEAN Community can see the opportunity in emphasizing its role in the new global situation, and will face the core issues that impact and require member countries’ coherence.
Speaking for an interview with Nikkei in late December, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary – Perfecto Yasay, said that the Philippines would continue taking East Vietnam Sea issue in to the ASEAN’s agenda.
The Philippines will be in charge of chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017 and, besides, Manila would also promote a major regional trade deal initiated by Beijing.
“The [East Vietnam Sea] issue is always a concern that can be raised by any ASEAN member in light of the joint communique that we have already made”, Mr. Yasay told the Nikkei Asian Review. “These issues can be brought up and we will be addressing them.”
The Philippines is a particular example of what ASEAN countries will face in 2017.
By one side, ASEAN will attract attention from international relations in the Asia – Pacific region. On the other hand, ASEAN countries must find the way to balance the national interest and common interest of an one ASEAN.
The U.S President Barack Obama’s administration had shown its “pivot to Asia”. The policy had been linked strongly to political geography tools such as The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was affected when President Donald Trump officially took his role on earlier this year.
“The biggest challenge for ASEAN in 2017 will be managing its relations with the new Trump Administration in Washington,” Prof. Carl Thayer commented.
“There are two aspects of this. The first is dealing with Trump’s unpredictability. The second aspect is to keep the United States engaged in Southeast Asia to balance China at a time when the Duterte government is moving in the opposite direction.”
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member nations shake hands at the summit in Vientiane on September 6, 2016.
However, the ASEAN increasing role is not deniable.
At the 7th East Vietnam Sea International Conference 2015, hosted by Vietnam in Vung Tau, Anton Tsvetov, Media and Government Relations Manager at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), mentioned the “Russia's strategic, opportunities for constructive engagement on the East Vietnam Sea”.
Mr. Tsvetov, who also specializes in Southeast Asian affairs, argued that Russia’s engagement is unlikely to cause too much irritation, but may contribute to a more balanced global presence in the East Vietnam Sea.
In an article for ISEAS Yusof Ishak’s Comtemporary Southeast Asia in April, Mr. Tsvetov said that after Crimea, Southeast Asia is in Russia’s foreign policy narrative.
Not only Russia and the U.S, ASEAN is also “flirted” by China, according to Prof. Vu Duong Ninh.
He said: “After the Philippines, Malaysia also had some signal of concession toward China, which related to economic and investment. Donald Trump becoming the 45th U.S President is an example of difficulty of Vietnam and other ASEAN nations, because we don’t know what Trump would really do in his presidency, as well as other influencing nation’s diplomatic strategy is still ambiguous. Meanwhile, China could take advantage of their economy to attract ASEAN members.”
Needing a common voice based on respect others’ benefits
Prof. Vu Duong Ninh added, “However, I think that we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because it is about international relations’ norm.
“In that norm, almost every country always takes advantage for itself first, then common things later.
“In the past, we usually had mindset of persistence, but event of the new U.S president, Donald Trump, is really evidence.
“I think, Vietnam should protect our national interest by taking advances of international mutual intensive cooperation and relationship with other strong nations, not only The U.S and China, but also Japan, Russia and ASEAN community.
“This balance will create a strong base for Vietnam, which helps Vietnam prevent from global changes.”
Secondly, according to Prof. Vu Duong Ninh, Vietnam should concentrate on maintaining relationship within ASEAN, because no matter what happens, “ASEAN is still an indispensable organization”.
Since joining the ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam has taken advantage of this participation to develop economy.
In 2016, Vietnam was one of the six strongest economies in ASEAN and has been illustrated its important role in ASEAN‘s decision making through the years.
Also in the Fifth International Conference on Vietnamese Studies, author Li Chuxia from the University of International Relationship (China), confirmed that, Vietnam has been changing its approach toward South East Asian nations via diplomatic policies.
This Chinese scholar stated that Vietnam has been adapting quickly with new global structure after the Cold War, such as creating relationship with neighbor nations and considering ASEAN as crucial decision after the independent day.
In this new era of developing economy, Vietnam signed mass of economic agreements with ASEAN, joint in APEC and WTO. The author concluded that Vietnam will continue to improve its roles within ASEAN, especially in security and political aspect due to its shareable benefits with ASEAN.
According to Prof. Thayer, 6 out of 10 ASEAN members will continuously focus on internal events including maintaining politics of Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia , Indonesia and the Philippines.
Therefore, external issues will slowly effect on ASEAN such as territorial disputes in the East Vietnam Sea, despite ASEAN still focus on this issue and cope with China via United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.
An idea from Vietnam
Because ASEAN still faces conflicts between mutual interests and national benefits of each member, to balance these two factors is not an easy task.
Le Hong Hiep, Professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS, Singapore) stated in an article in November 2016 that making decisions based on a vote by majority could be a better mechanism in ASEAN meeting instead of consensus principle.
This is not a new idea, but it fits with ASEAN‘s situation, especially citing “the accident” as ASEAN did not give any common agreement at the conference in Cambodia in 2012.
According to Prof. Le Hong Hiep, ASEAN should clearly distinguish the two kinds of issues. The first kind is things related to a clear impact on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic autonomy of any member state. The second one is problems with a clear impact on the peace and security of the region.
For the first kind, all the nations should give solutions based on respect and consensus principle. For the second one, it is necessary to use majority vote to prevent any member from fighting against the interests of the remaining nine members and detrimental to peace and security in the region. This approach is also appreciated by Prof. Thayer.
In other words, there are thoughts from Vietnam which prove that, ASEAN must overcome challenges in their operation and giving decision by themselves.
However, these solutions still prioritizes fairness, solidarity and respect each other’s national interests.:
The youth in ASEAN need a common channel for political awareness
In ASEAN region, member states have been maintained connectivity and frequent cultural exchanges. The Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP) is one of the most popular events to Vietnamese youth.
But taking a look at SSEAYP, it is easy to find that the youth in ASEAN community have little information of other countries, even when it comes to cultures and people.
Vu Pham Minh Tuan, who accompanied SSEAYP for four years (from 2008 to 2012), said that although SSEAYP does not focus on politics, he still found his mates in the region care less about other countries’ aspects, including politics.
This makes them hard to equip necessary preparations for the integration.
“After two times contacting with members (of SSEAYP) and the local youth, I see, in general, youth in ASEAN are varied in level, knowledge level and so on,” Vu said.
“They are all talents with soft skills and team work ability, especially the youth from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
“But there are many of them do not know about other ASEAN countries.
“I argue that the reason is, ASEAN countries do not know each other, gradually formed inaccurate and inappropriate perceptions about the others.”